Occupy and the Absence of Systemic Conflict Resolution
By: Derek Sweetman March 15, 2012
The continued persistence of the Occupy movement is likely both heartening and challenging for readers of Unrest. Heartening because many of us, I presume, are sympathetic to the general goals of the movement and the nonviolent tactics generally used, but also challenging for scholars and practitioners in conflict resolution because it is not immediately clear what role practitioners could or should play in the conflict that the movement is addressing. Not every social or political interaction is a conflict and not all conflicts require the attention of a “conflict worker,” to borrow Johan Galtung’s term (1996, 266). In order to justify a conflict analysis and resolution response, we should be able to identify a unique and helpful contribution to be made. It is my contention here that conflict resolution, as currently thought and practiced, is ill-prepared for this kind of contribution.
In some senses, Occupy fits well within the descriptions of both traditional social movements (anti-slavery and women’s suffrage) and the New Social Movements of the 1960s and 1970s, both of which are well-discussed in the literature of mobilization and contention. Occupy, like other movements, must address logistics, organization, planning, messaging, political opportunities, and other issues. However, there are two competing ways in which focusing on Occupy simply as a movement is misleading. On one hand, it encourages us to examine the dynamics of the individual groups in their interaction with the different locations of their occupations and other actions – to do organization-level analysis. Focusing at this level can keep us from seeing the systemic interactions that include, but are not limited to, the parties in protest.. On the other hand, it encourages us to frame the entire discussion around whether Occupy can “win.” This view is primarily concerned with whether or not the movement will prevail against its opponents. From a conflict perspective, I feel that both of these pull us away from the real issues.
It is easy to imagine a conflict analysis research project focusing on one occupation and its relationship with the local community, the local police, and/or local decision makers. We have seen quite different conflict dynamics in New York, Washington, and Oakland, and each of these could be examined and explained. However, this is to step away from the larger conflict in which Occupy is engaged and instead pay attention to the individualized conflicts (say Occupy NYC vs. NYC police) that are in a meaningful way about the larger conflict. The “can Occupy win” perspective recognizes Occupy as a participant in a larger conflict, but the adoption of a win/lose frame is undermined by a lack of consensus about what a victory would look like and the fact that “winning” for Occupy is less about the elimination of its opponents than their conversion.
I would argue that the conflict approach brings greater insight to Occupy in the end. The first step in this analysis would be to identify the conflict in which Occupy is a party. There have been many different answers proposed by experts and media figures intending to explain what Occupy is “really about,” often in the same breath with complaints that Occupy does not have any goals or demands. Participants in Occupy actions are concerned with a number of different causes and problems, and this concern is not equally shared by all participants, but it seems clear that most of this falls under the umbrella of “economic justice.” I believe this is the nature of the conflict. It is a conflict over the distribution of resources and opportunity.
It is important to note that Occupy is not a movement exclusively responding to an immediate trigger, but one with an appreciation that it is engaged in a longer fight that has only recently adopted Occupy tactics. This helps us realize that the current wave of actions are not started from whole cloth, but instead the manifest portion of a long-running latent conflict, to borrow Sandole’s distinction (1998). This realization encourages us to view Occupy as only one stage in an ongoing conflict.
At the same time, it is helpful to reframe Occupy’s stated cause, “economic justice,” into the language of our field. From our perspective, Occupy is concerned with the reduction of “structural violence,” which Johan Galtung defined as violence that does not have “a clear subject-object relation,” (1969, 171) and John Burton developed this into structural violence as “damaging deprivations caused by the nature of social institutions and policies” (1997, 32). Burton, interestingly, recognizes that structural violence can produce alienation and withdrawal from the political system, and specifically notes that this can result in “protest forms of behavior” (1997, 33).
This focus on structural violence is reinforced by the fact that it is difficult to match Occupy with another party as opponents in this conflict. By this I mean that it is not entirely accurate to say this is an Occupy-US conflict, or an Occupy-Wall Street conflict, any more than it would be to say this is an Occupy-local police or Occupy-citizen conflict. As one of the Occupiers present on the first day of Occupy Wall Street put it, “We have no Mubarak, no Qaddafi. We are the country that reelected Bush…” (Blumenkranz et al. 2011, 13). Occupy does not have a direct foil.
In light of this, I believe the best way to characterize the Occupy conflict is as one between the group, on one hand, and a particular system on the other. Kenneth Boulding called conflicts between different types of parties “heterogenous conflicts,” and while he was considering examples like “the struggle of a state with a church, of a union with a corporation or of a university with a state government or a church authority” (1962, 166–167), it seems reasonable to apply this distinction to group-system conflicts as well.
In addition to recognizing that the Occupy conflict is heterogenous, it is useful to site the conflict within the taxonomy developed by Rapoport (1974). Rapoport argues that all social conflict is better thought of as conflict between systems instead of conflict between groups and that it is “the nature of the systems in conflict, I believe, [that] determines the interactions between them, and, hence, the nature of the conflict and its psychological, sociological, and historical import” (1974, 175). He uses this staring point to discuss two taxonomies of conflict. The first of these uses three distinctions.
The first distinction is between exogenous and endogenous conflicts. Exogenous conflicts occur within environments where there is no over-arching system “to exercise control or resolve conflict” while endogenous occur within environments that have their own ways of “maintaining a steady state, which may include mechanisms for controlling or resolving conflict between the sub-systems” (Rapoport 1974, 175). In this sense, while it is tempting to view the Occupy conflict as endogenous, since it is happening within the American democracy and there are methods of dealing with both dissent and political argument, I feel that the nature of the challenge presented by Occupy makes this an exogenous conflict.
What I mean is that while there are mechanisms in place for handling challenges to the dominant structure, these are actually policies about the policing of bodies and speech. This system is not constituted to resolve the conflict between in-system and out-system ideas, but to suppress challenging ideas. This would be a “mechanism for controlling…conflict,” but part of the intent of Occupy is to prevent this hegemonic mechanism from being brought to bear and to enact the conflict outside of its bounds, pushing the conflict into the exogenous space.
The second distinction is between symmetric and asymmetric conflicts, where symmetrical conflicts are between roughly equal groups and asymmetric conflicts are not. This conflict is clearly asymmetric, but I am not convinced that this is analytically interesting since all social movement conflicts, by definition, are asymmetric.
The third distinction is between issue-oriented conflict and structure-oriented conflict. Issue-oriented conflicts are those that will be “resolved when the issue is settled” while structural conflicts cannot be resolved without structural change. I believe that Occupy is a structural conflict, although most of the op-ed, talking-head discussion about Occupy is focused on trying to make it into an issue-oriented conflict. Occupy itself has strongly resisted the call for specific demands, partially as a tactic, but also, I believe, as a fundamental recognition of the nature of its conflict. Making specific policy demands can be seen as a step toward marginalization, since those demands, if within the power of a regime, can be granted. The Obama administration’s reform of the student loan system could be read in this light. Once issue-based demands are granted, individuals who are sympathetic to the movement will often let their attention shift elsewhere. An insistence that resolution cannot be bargained is both a method of remaining relevant (unless it alienates supporters – a real threat) and a way of ensuring that the battle, in effect, is taking place within the conflict Occupy wants to fight. It is, in a way, an attempt to follow Rosa Luxembourg, and not Eduard Bernstein, in the perennial reform/revolution debate (Luxemburg 2008). Additionally, this highlights the extent to which movement conflicts are sometimes struggles over the nature of the conflict itself.
Within Rapoport’s first taxonomy, then, we can see the Occupy movement participating in an exogenous, asymmetrical, structure-oriented conflict. The most important implication of this, described by Rapoport, is that neither side in the conflict can appeal simply to a greater super-system and that the conflict cannot be resolved until structural change occurs. The alternative, the elimination of Occupy as a functioning movement, could move the conflict from manifest to latent, but would not provide a true resolution.
Rapoport’s second taxonomy, developed in an earlier work (1960), focuses less on the context in which the conflict is occurring and more on the way it is being pursued. He divided conflicts into fights, games, and debates. Rapoport sees fights as biologically-driven responses to situations where “the opponent is perceived most clearly as an ‘enemy,’ as one who threatens one’s own autonomy simply by being present or existing” (1974, 180). Perceptions of the enemy form a “noxious stimulus” that encourages both sides to seek annihilation or dominance. Rhetoric inside Occupy that pushes a message of “they are out to get us,” or from outside, framing Occupy as a threat to America by Marxist rebels, is an attempt to push the conflict into a fight, or at least to threaten that it can become a fight as a tactic of swaying support.
Games, alternatively, are “characterized by an analysis of a situation and of other situations foreseen as outcomes of decisions, both one’s own and those of an opponent” (Rapoport 1974, 181, emphasis in original). Whereas fights occur between enemies, games occur between opponents. This is a vital distinction, in that opponents are competitive within the context of the game, but cooperative in their attempts to maintain the existence of the game itself. A good example of this is the stock market. While traders compete to be the one who comes out on top, they also conspire to keep the system functioning. Attempts to push Occupy to a bargaining or electoral stance (from within the movement and from the outside) are attempts to make the conflict into one that occurs within the “game” of democracy.
Debates, for Rapoport, are “conflicts of ideas,” primarily about “turning the opponent into a confederate” (1974, 182). Debates may seem like the most innocuous form of conflict, but the presumption that the end goal of the conflict is persuasion does not necessarily mean it will be smooth or violence-free. Rapoport is wrong to say debates are “essentially exchanges of verbal stimuli” (1974, 182). Gandhi’s vision of nonviolent conversion focuses specifically on the use of suffering to promote understanding and awareness in your opponent. Even the non-conversion aspects of what Michael Nagler calls “obstructive programme” (2003, 177), the intentional non-cooperation with evil, are intended to change the behavior of the opponent, not to eliminate them. Gene Sharp is concerned about the distinction between “conversion” and “coercion” and counsels that conversion was only ever a small part of Gandhi’s program, largely as a method of distinguishing Sharpe’s pragmatic nonviolence from perceptions of Gandhi’s work as predominately spiritual (1973, 83), however both approaches are based on a common belief that the goal is not to eliminate the enemy, but to persuade her. Whether this persuasion requires simple conversion or non-cooperative coercion is a matter of tactics and situation.
Gene Sharp extends this to the idea that political power derives exclusively from the consent of the governed, even though those giving consent are not always aware of their complicity in the exchange (1973). Bernard Lonergan reaches a similar conclusion in his analysis of authority in political systems (1985). This is not the American ideal of citizens giving implied consent through representation, but the literal belief the one party only has authority over another to the extent that the second party grants it. One corollary of this is that the weakness of systems lay in the link between abstract idea and consent of those subject to the system and not in eliminating those seen as either benefiting from the system or who appear to be in control of it.
It should be clear that although Occupy does not present the most direct and traditional case for conflict analysis, we have many analytical approaches that seemed to deal with it, especially considering that the bulk of the preceding analysis is built on well-known, foundational texts. However, when we turn to the perhaps more urgent question of how conflict resolution practitioners should respond, there is no equivalent contribution.
The nature of the conflict, as system-oriented and heterogeneous, makes the question of potential “conflict resolution” problematic. As Rapoport argued, system-focused conflicts can only be resolved through structural change. Attempts to turn this into a “resolution-friendly” conflict, for example by staging an intervention between representatives of Occupy Wall Street and Wall Street banks, would be missing the point.
This concern cannot be avoided by simply turning to notions of “transformation” over “resolution” (see Bush and Folger 2004). The management-resolution-transformation continuum presumes that we are still talking about two or more communicative parties. The tools our field has primarily used are dialogic, or at least oriented at bargaining and the exchange of information between decision making parties. Heterogenous, system-focused conflicts occur between a group of people and a system. While this system may have people who speak in its favor, no one – and no group – is actually in charge. Conspiracy theories about the power of the Trilateral Commission, a cabal of CEOs, or bigoted assumptions about the power of Jewish bankers all traffic in the illusion that they system can be (or must be) anthropomorphized. The only way that we can be “third parties” is if we can identify the “first parties.” But in this case this is difficult, as Judith Butler captured in her speech at Occupy Wall Street on October 23rd:
…it is true that there are no demands that you can submit to arbitration here because we are not just demanding economic justice and social equality. We are assembling in public, we are coming together as bodies in alliance, in the street and in the square. We’re standing here together making democracy, enacting the phrase “We the people” (Blumenkranz et al. 2011, 168).
I appreciate that equating “conflict resolution” simply with arbitration is a straw man argument. Our field no longer seeks simply to bargain for “resolutions” and newer approaches of “conflict transformation” concern themselves with addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, which may include new political structures, but they still presume that there are individuals who can be put in a room to discuss these structures and make decisions about how to change them – actors who speak and decide for different parts of the system. This is systemic conflict resolution as constitution-drafting, and it does not apply in exogenous conflicts, since no such constitution exists.
In light of this, what are we to do? Some practitioners have chosen to intervene with individual Occupy groups on those kinds of conflict that are more amenable to our tools, using mediation and facilitation to address disputes that arise within the groups and between the Occupations and local citizens or businesspeople. This is admirable work, but its contribution to addressing the underlying systemic conflict is limited to hoping that a reduction in conflict within Occupy and between Occupy and those with which it interacts will help strengthen the movement, which will then be able to work harder and more efficiently.
Occupy lays bare the gap between the analysis of systemic conflict and the absence of reasonable tools for addressing the kind of conflict in which Occupy is participating. Hopefully, this can serve as a call not just for awareness of this limitation in our work, but the concerted effort to develop these tools as we move ahead.
Blumenkranz, Carla, Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Sarah Leonard, Sarah Resnick, Nikil Saval, Astra Taylor, and Eli Schmitt, eds. 2011. Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. Verso Books.
Boulding, Kenneth Ewart. 1962. Conflict and Defense: A General Theory. Harper.
Burton, John Wear. 1997. Violence Explained: The Sources of Conflict, Violence and Crime and Their Prevention. Manchester University Press ND.
Bush, Robert A. Baruch, and Joseph P. Folger. 2004. The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to Conflict. Revised. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Galtung, Johan. 1969. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research 6 (3): 167–191.
———. 1996. Peace by Peaceful Means. SAGE.
Lonergan, Bernard J. F. 1985. “Dialectic of Authority.” In A Third Collection: Papers by Bernard J. F. Lonergan, ed. Fredrick E. Crowe, 5–12. Paulist Press.
Luxemburg, Rosa. 2008. The Essential Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or Revolution & The Mass Strike. Chicago Ill.: Haymarket Books.
Nagler, Michael. 2003. Is There No Other Way?: The Search for a Nonviolent Future. Inner Ocean Publishing/Innisfree Press.
Rapoport, Anatol. 1960. Fights, Games, and Debates. University of Michigan Press.
———. 1974. Conflict in Man-Made Environment. New York: Penguin Books.
Sandole, Dennis J. D. 1998. “A Comprehensive Mapping of Conflict and Conflict Resolution: A Three Pillar Approach.” Peace and Conflict Studies, 5 (2) (December). http://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/pcs/sandole.htm.
Sharp, Gene. 1973. The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part One: Power and Struggle. P. Sargent Publisher.